Victor Cruz looks like his old self, and the Giants are sure going to need him
It's a brutal night on offense for both the Giants and the Jets in preseason dress rehearsal
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was nothing spectacular about his play and little noteworthy to speak of, really. Except, of course, the mere fact that Victor Cruz was playing NFL football again after all of the season-ending injuries and setbacks. A self-made star who came from nowhere to become a sensation, Cruz is now fighting for his football life and he made it through Saturday's preseason game without incident.
On a night when the Giants offense was pretty much putrid -- continuing a disturbing trend this summer -- Cruz assuming his old role in the slot and even making a catch in the second half amounted to the highlight reel for the "visiting" team at MetLife Stadium. Not that the home team, the Jets, who share this stadium, looked very imposing on offense, either, but the Giants were downright awful. They moved backwards at times, succumbing to penalties and turnovers and getting suffocated by the Jets powerful defensive line.
But at least the Giants had Cruz back out on the field, running crisp routes and building off what Giants people told me was by far his best week of practice in quite some time. Just being back in uniform and connecting with Eli Manning was something of an accomplishment for Cruz, who has played just six games over the last two seasons, who missed all of 2015, and who last caught a regular-season pass on Oct 12, 2014. He was open downfield a few times and Manning -- under duress behind a suspect offensive line -- could not get the ball to him.
Then, finally, in the second half with the Jets defense down to its reserves, Manning found Cruz for a four-yard gain. The stadium lit up for a moment to bellow forth that "Cruuuuzzzz," salute, years in the making.
"It felt great man," Cruz said, "just to be with my teammates and put this 80 jersey back on and to get the love of the crowd and the people again and go out there and be in position to make a few plays as well. It was a great feeling."
Much is being made of the Giants' inability to score points throughout this preseason, and one wonders if rookie head coach Ben McAdoo truly intended for his starters to play into the third quarter. But ultimately I believe that will be the least of their problems as long as the offensive line isn't drastically bad, which, well ...
All the Giants need is for Cruz to be a fairly reliable third-or-fourth option in this offense. Make no mistake, though, the Giants were manhandled by a tough Jets defense, mustering just 47 yards on 26 plays in the first half when it was starters vs. starters. It will send McAdoo searching for some answers.
The good news? Expensive additions to the defense -- Olivier Vernon, Damon "Snacks" Harrison and Janoris Jenkins -- have largely been as advertised by all accounts and are adding some much needed bite into a long-suffering unit. Jason Pierre-Paul, who re-signed in the offseason, also looks improved.
"We have to get better moving the ball," Manning said," getting first downs and just staying out of the negative plays. There is definitely some room for improvement."
All in all, however, seeing Cruz back on the field was about as good as it got for the Giants Saturday night, overcoming -- at least for now -- the serious knee and calf injuries that have robbed him of doing what he loves most.
"It felt like old times," Cruz said. "I caught the ball in the flat and tried to make something happen, but I got to feel a little bit of contact, which is a great feeling."
Manning said: "It is good to get Victor back out there and in some live action. He had worked hard to get back to this point, so I am happy for him and we'll keep working, get on the same page, and hopefully connect some more."
More on the Giants and the Jets
Don't expect anything to change between the Giants and embattled kicker Josh Brown, who was suspended for the first game of the season for violating the NFL's domestic violence policy. The team has done exhaustive internal work on Brown and his relationship with his ex-wife and is supporting him. The Giants feel comfortable enough with what they know of the situation to continue to back him, publicly and privately, and barring him doing something that violates the law I would not anticipate that changing.
This is obviously a very sensitive subject and, frankly, they easy thing for the Giants to do would be to release him (and, in reality, they had all of this information at the time they opted to re-sign him in the first place). They are taking a significant public relations hit here locally -- and also nationally to some degree -- but they have no plans to make a switch at kicker or to keep veteran Randy Bullock, who was signed to kick in Week 1 when Brown is suspended. And, again, that is highly unlikely to change unless Brown gives the Giants reason to waver.
- The Giants feel good about some of the strides being made by their young edge players, but identifying a reliable third pass rusher will be imperative. If something happens to Pierre-Paul or Vernon, they are very thin on the outside and they'll be pouring over the waiver wire for possible fits in this regard. I wouldn't entirely rule out a trade for a veteran who might get cut elsewhere, as well.
- Running back remains one of the deeper positions on the Giants roster, albeit one that didn't stand out in this game against such a beastly defense. While the Giants aren't overloaded with feature backs, they have six or seven who could play in this league at some level. Rookie Paul Perkins has opened some eyes and young veterans like Orleans Darkwa have made a sound impression as well.
I continue to suspect the Jets deal Geno Smith. The fans here are unforgiving with him -- booing him upon his entrance to the game in the second quarter, and with the team carrying four passers currently, and expected to red-shirt rookie Christian Hackenberg, a change of scenery might be in order.
Pittsburgh and Dallas are among the teams calling around on potential back-up quarterbacks and Bryce Petty has been OK for the most part, although he wasted a chance to pad his stats deep in this game and was less-than-accurate (a pick six in the fourth quarter was the nadir), with none of the quarterbacks really distinguishing himself on the night. "It's a stupidity thing on my part," Petty said of the interception. "I can't let that happen. We're in the red zone, we've got points, if it's not there, make the smart decision to throw it away."
Carrying all four QBs would be tricky, and the decisions would be easier if Petty had a strong outing, but the environment in that stadium may be too toxic to have to turn to Smith when the games really matter. Hackenberg, by the way, in his pro debut, drove the team 75 yards in seven plays and delivered consecutive big-league passes including a beauty for a touchdown. Definitely something he can build on. "He was up and down," Bowles said of the rookie.
Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like a guy who missed the entire spring due to a contract standoff. He was fairly brutal -- throwing balls nowhere near the target, loosing his mechanics and putting up jump balls that could've been easily picked. It was unsightly. He did rally with a touchdown pass late in the first half, but he looked utterly lost without his top target, Brandon Marshall, playing.
Marshall was a late scratch -- everything I was told is that he's fine -- and if you didn't think he was the straw that stirs the drink here, well, check out what this looked like without him. Bowles said the Jets have to "manage" a lingering hip issue for Marshall and that if this was a regular-season game he would have played. The Jets offense will go as he goes.
- The Jets lost Harrison to the Giants and lot was made of that, but as a one-down run stuffer on what may have been the league's best 3-4 defensive front rotation, the loss is not all that stinging. Muhammad Wilkerson can easily toggle from tackle to end and he was a run annihilator on Saturday, shedding blockers with ease and feasting on the interior of the Giants offensive line. It was Wilkerson's first game back since breaking his leg in the final game of the 2015 regular season and he was in top form as the Giants could sustain nothing at the line of scrimmage. "He looked like he was ready to go," coach Todd Bowles said of Wilkerson.
- Don't sleep on Darrelle Revis this season. After all that talk about him needing to move to safety or getting old or whatever, dude looks kinda possessed to me. He had a pick on a deep throw Saturday and the sense around this camp is that the corner is out to shut some folks up. On Saturday, he, and this defense, were in great form. "We really came out ready to go," Revis said. "Guys were getting to Eli and the secondary was playing tight coverage. Those two go hand in hand with the rush and defensive coverage. It was great today."
- The Jets got a chance to feature free-agent signing Matt Forte in the first half after he missed the early stages of camp due to injury. They fed him the ball on early drives, flexed him to the slot on screen plays and more or less ran a vanilla scheme through him. He was able to sprint off tackle and gain the corner a few times and all in all it was a good showing for him, as I'd expect he sits until the season opener now. Forte had 10 rushes for 28 yards in the first half, and two catches for nine yards. "He looked healthy and quick," Bowles said.
- With starter Breno Giacomini out indefinitely with a back injury, the Jets continued to rotate replacement right tackles in his spot and in general seemed to hold up OK with that Saturday night. At some point they'll give the nod to veteran Ben Ijalana or less-experienced Brent Qvale, but have been pleasantly surprised with both. Ijalana needed medical attention on his arm late in the game -- and another injury would surely prompt further exploration of adding a veteran -- as this situation will remain under scrutiny through the roster cutdowns. Bowles did not seem overly concerned with Ijalan's status and said he did not show up on the post-game injury report.
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